Looking back at the legacy that is the John FX Keator Memorial Pumpkin Walk in Washington

John Keator on his scooter in front of the bonfire at the 2010 Washington Pumpkin Walk

BERKSHIRE FAMILY FOCUS FILE PHOTO
John Keator mans the bonfire in his scooter, at the 12th annual Washington Pumpkin Walk in 2010. He died a year later, just eight days before the 13th annual Walk which he and his wife, Georgette, created, from ALS.

Snoopy, as Joe Cool, carved into a pumpkin

BERKSHIRE FAMILY FOCUS FILE PHOTO
Joe Cool made an appearance at the 2011 13th annual Washington Pumpkin Walk last year — the first annual John FX Keator Memorial walk.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Four years ago I wrote a story for a local weekly publication on the 11th annual Washington Pumpkin Walk featuring the creative husband and wife team behind the walk (and my good friends), Washington residents John and Georgette Keator. John loved the article and was continually pulling me aside at the walk that year introducing me to people proudly as “the one who wrote that fantastic article on the pumpkin walk.” He kept a clipping of that article at his house that he pulled out to show me a year later. Seven months after that article ran, John was diagnosed with the terminal disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Despite his declining physical state and his inability to carve pumpkins the following year, Keator oversaw the carving and also manned the fire as always at the 12th annual Pumpkin Walk, both via his scooter. Never giving up, John fought until the end researching all of the latest advances, natural remedies and technology to help him manage his disease. He lost his battle with ALS two year ago on, Oct. 22, eight days before the 13th annual Pumpkin Walk.

Knowing how important it was to see his legacy live on, family, friends, Washington residents and students from the Becket Washington Elementary School banned together to put on the first-ever John FX Keator Memorial Pumpkin Walk on Oct. 30, 2011, the third annual of which will take place this Friday, Oct. 25.

“Twelve people stepped up (to organize the walk) that year. It’s a good example of you reap what you sow, which is something John always believed,” said Georgette Keator. “It’s always been something bigger than just us, and if we couldn’t make it happened (the residents of Washington) were going to make it happen.”

In memory of John, and as a tribute to him, we will rerun the original article that he loved so much each year.

We miss you John!

 

WASHINGTON — Each Halloween thousands of jack-o-lanterns line walkways and doorsteps throughout Berkshire County. Whether carved by novices or professionals, sporting triangle-eyed faces or intricately etched Halloween scenes, these pumpkins serve as canvases for one of the most unique forms of artistic expression, and once a year pumpkin “artists” young and old get to showcase their art for all to see.

Tomorrow night, Washington residents John and Georgette Keator will display some of their remarkable pumpkin designs at the 11th Annual Pumpkin Walk, held at the town park in Washington.

The evening, which has become a Halloween staple for the town of Washington and its surrounding communities, features trick-or-treating, hayrides, a bonfire and over 60 pumpkin with facades etched and carved to resemble well-known celebrities and cartoon characters and even a president or two. Past designs have included Barack Obama, Mickey Mouse, Heath Ledger and Frankenstein.

“You don’t have a concept of what it’s really about unless you go there to see them, because they really are pictures,” John said.

Toucan Sam carved into a pumpkin

BERKSHIRE FAMILY FOCUS FILE PHOTO
Toucan Sam graces a pumpkin at the 2010 Washington Pumpkin Walk.

Doc from Snow White etched into a pumpkin

BERKSHIRE FAMILY FOCUS
Doc, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, also was on hand at the 12th annual Washington Pumpkin Walk in 2010.

The Pumpkin Walk miracle

The Keators said preparing for the annual walk is not an easy task, and it takes a number of key players to make it happen. Donations from residents throughout the year pay for the candy and food. Other residents, including Boy Scout troops and local businesses donate in-kind services and materials such as lumber, portable bathrooms, the hayride and the volunteers themselves. Some people even show up the night of the walk and offer their services.

“Every year we always have, I call it, the pumpkin walk miracle,” Georgette said. “We always run short on volunteers, we’re missing something etc. Someone always shows up at the same time and offers to help.”

The real miracle though seems to be getting all the pumpkins carved in time for the event. And that takes time, planning and a whole lot of patience.
“You have to be very patient. I’ve actually known people who are very artistic who can’t do it,” Georgette said.

The Keators begin carving the Sunday before the walk, with John partaking in the ceremonial carving of the first pumpkin. Then the real work begins. John and Georgette (and any volunteers they can round up) spend every free moment of the next week detailing the pumpkins, even taking a few days off of work so they can dedicate entire days to the task.

The pair has yet to disappoint and plan to surprise visitors this year with a sampling of “various 70s icons.”

You should do that here

But the event hasn’t always been a Washington tradition. The Pumpkin Walk had its humble beginnings in the back woods of Lenox over 20 years ago, where the pumpkin carving took place around a bonfire with friends and the final results were of a more censored variety.

“There was a path in the woods that was about a 2-mile stretch, and we would light the path (with pumpkins). The only way you could see your way along the path is you could see the next pumpkin on the path from the one you were at,” John said. “And then it would end in a clearing with a big bonfire, we’d have a party and it would be a good time.”

It was a stop at the town transfer station with a car full of pumpkins destined for the Lenox woods that brought the party to Washington.

“A lady at the transfer station said, ‘What do you have all these pumpkin for?’ And when I told her she said, ‘You live up here now. You should do that here now,’” John said.

That was 11 years ago, and every year since the Pumpkin Walk has grown in numbers and, according to the Keators, attracted visitors from Berkshire County and beyond. The event boasts visitors from several states and at least six different countries.

“(The Pumpkin Walk) kind of has a life of its own now. Every year Georgette and I think this is it. It’s too much… and every year we get there and the Pumpkin Walk happens and you see everyone smiling and having a good time,” John said. “And then everyone leaves and we sit down and look at each other and we let out that sigh of relief and it’s like, ‘Wow, that was awesome.”

Something special

One of the most awesome parts of the pumpkin walk, John said, are the stories — people amazed at what they have seen, the people who have made the Pumpkin Walk a family tradition, the people whose children don’t know a Halloween without the elaborately designed pumpkins.

But there is one story that ranks as one of John’s favorite. It’s the story of an older woman he met at one of the earlier walks.

“This woman looks at me, she’s got tears in her eyes and she says, ‘I want to thank you, because this reminds me of my childhood. This is what we used to do. There wasn’t television. We would get together as a community. We would have a bonfire, hot cider and a hayride and we’d just get together and have a good time.’” he said. “For me that’s when I said, ‘This is something special.’”

This year’ 15th Annual Washington Pumpkin Walk, (the third annual John FX Keator Memorial Pumpkin Walk, featuring intricately carved pumpkins, trick-or-treating, food and more will be held, Friday, Oct. 25, from 6 to 10 p.m. at the Washington town park on Route 8 in Washington.

Kelly Bevan McIlquham

Kelly Bevan McIlquham

Kelly Bevan McIlquham was born and raised in the Berkshires and pours her passion for children, family and the region into this site. She lives in Hinsdale with her husband Mark, three children —Kenna, Max and Shea — and her two dogs Murphy and Titan. She is the founder of Berkshire Family Focus and Renaissance Mom. Contact her at kelly@berkshirefamilyfocus.com.
Kelly Bevan McIlquham

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